Synthetic Dogs

by Matt Wildig

The Rail-City Markets were a collection of sloppy biohackers, genetically modified safe-dogs, and your run-of-the-mill scammers. Most came for enhancements. I came for the food – one of the only authentic connections to Parramatta’s past.

I sat under a makeshift awning that buckled under the rain and argued with Wei, proprietor of Joe’s Noodles and a man with more hair in his nose than on his scalp. The awning was part of the deal at Joe’s. You took the good with the bad.

‘Ain’t no way, Jack. Nooooo way,’ he yelled over the street noise.  

I shovelled noodles into my mouth and said, ‘Trust me. Pies are out for the season.’ 

Wei told me where I could stick my ideas and continued to slice his Bok Choy. His scarred hands moved with delicate precision, the knife an extension that hadn’t required modification. He was all real, or at least that’s what he’d told me. You could hide a lot if you stayed away from the body scanners.

‘You decide what you’re gonna do yet, Jack? said Wei.

‘Nope.’

He glanced at me through the open window of the train as he tossed a handful of Bok Choy into the steaming pot. 

‘You tryin’ to tell me you don’t like dogs?’

I dug my chopsticks into the bowl, snatched a piece of pork that had floated to the surface, and waved it at him. ‘I like real dogs.’

Wei cackled. ‘Nobody likes real dogs. Not anymore.’

He leaned on the edge of the sill, his lined face serious, like a man ready to impart all the secrets of the universe.

‘You’re here every other night on that same busted chair. You do what you do, and you know I have no problem with it. Man’s gotta get paid. But you do all that, and you go home to your fancy apartment. I know you got the guns and the ladies and whatever else, but I know, Jack. ’ He jabbed a callused finger at my chest. ‘You’re alone in there.’

A man with eyes planted in his face in the constellation of the Southern Cross called out for a number two, extra chilli, extra eel, and Wei responded in fluent Japanese.  He winked at me and went back at it, part man, part noodle brewing machine.

‘Safe-dog’s the best you’re gonna get, Jack.’

I slid off the stool, slurped the tangy umami dregs of my soup, and pulled the hood of my slicker over my head.  

‘David. I’ve been coming here for years and you still want to play that Jack shit with me.’

‘You’re all Jack to me.’ He laughed, dropped chunks of eel into the wok, and it spat flames at him. ‘Tabs getting bigger.’

‘Always is.’ 

I slid into the current of the street, and advertisements called to me as I pushed through the noisy crowd. Sultry holographic figures promised to fulfil my wildest dreams, a bot sang Kylie Minogue but couldn’t get the tempo and the dance moves to sync right, and a jacked blue cartoon dog ordered me to pledge my allegiance to Ukazi or die. Sometimes I wished the world was as simple as it was in the history books I’d read as a kid. Work with your hands, earn an honest living. Life seemed so much easier back then. 

I trailed behind a group of teens. They shuffled aimlessly; water rushed down their heavy plastic outfits, their synthetic eyes glazed in a frosty blue sheen. I wondered what they had plugged themselves into?  An Auslink stipend and a bunk in the ruins of the Commons was a shitty way to live, but I guess I couldn’t blame them. The city hadn’t done much to help me either. Something about their obliviousness held my attention for a few blocks more than it should have, and rather than double back, I turned off Church Street.

The alley was a dumping ground; the doors that faced its dilapidated lane were barred, chained, and mag-coded. Rain spurted off the dumpsters and pooled in the contorted crevices of plexi shipping crates.  A high-pitched clink echoed off the walls and I slid my pistol from its holster; the cartridge hummed.

I navigated the trash, twisted my body around every cover, aimed.

Nothing. 

The rain and the alley. It was just messing with my head, and I knew better.

But something rustled ahead. I crossed the space in two strides.

‘Out!’

The slimy mass of black bags shook.

‘Come on!’ I kicked the bags and the stranger yelped. 

Fucking safe-dogs. 

I tossed a bag aside and did the math. Even a base model SD would fetch around two hundred bucks. A fancier model like a 12B Husky would go for at least a thousand. I flung another bag.  

It cowered between the dumpster and the wall. Its fur was a wet, matted mess and its musty stench wafted into my nostrils. Its brown eyes looked up at me.

‘Shit.’ I staggered back, covered my mouth with my free hand, and began counting.

There were specialised units capable of decontaminating viral loads, but if they came in, I was as good as dead. They were trained well and paid even better. They were not the type of people to leave a potential hotspot unsterilised.

After a minute of steady, composed counting, I lifted my sleeves. My skin was clean – no reaction. Joe’s awning hadn’t got me and neither had this dog. Something out there had high hopes for me tonight because I was two for two.   

I knelt down, my grip on the pistol tighter than it had any right to be.

It was a real dog. 

It had to be ok, right? I wasn’t choking on bile, trying to tear my eyeballs out, or having hallucinations. And it didn’t look manic. It looked pathetic. Curled up under a steady dribble of water, trying to hide from a world that wanted to incinerate it.

‘Hey dog,’ I said, reaching out a cautious hand. ‘Come on.’

The dog seemed more cautious than I, lowered its head, sniffed the air.  

I shuffled toward it. ‘It’s ok.’

After a few minutes of hesitant confirmations, I inched my hand to the dog and my fingertips touched the rough, mangey fur. Its nose twitched and I smirked at how much it reminded me of a basketball.

‘Not sick, are you?’

The dog lifted its head into my outstretched palm and stood on thin, shaky legs. A makeshift collar hung around its neck – an old piece of shoelace tied to a grubby piece of plastic had the word biscuit scribbled in messy faded ink. 

‘Biscuit?’

At the sound of the word, its tail moved a little. 

‘You’re name’s –’

‘What the fuck you doin’?’

Two Royals made their way towards me. They were decked in the typical red and gold of the syndicate’s figurehead – Gold Tongue. The speaker was a monster with a square jaw and obsidian XXL arms designed to hurt people.

‘I said what the fuck are you doin’?’ 

Water dripped off my hood as I stood to greet them.

‘Nothing, man. Just taking a shortcut.’

‘You took the wrong shortcut, mate,’ said the other. 

Whatever face he’d been born with had been augmented beyond what could be considered human; his naked torso was a patchwork of agitated flesh and blazing cybernetics.

‘Guys…’ I lifted my free hand.  

The lanky guy lunged at me and his fingers became serrated blades. I rolled my shoulders, fell back, swung hard and fast with my right. The wrist cracked like a branch and he laughed.

‘We gonna get good money for you.’

The monster leaped at me but he was slow. A speed-bio was small and unnoticeable, but handy in one-off circumstances like these. I parried into waiting blades. They dug into my shoulder, and my pistol slipped through my fingers. The lanky guy’s eye flared red, and he ripped the blades out of me. The monster’s massive fist grabbed the scruff of my slicker, and my eyes betrayed me.

He looked at the dumpster and then back to me, his eyes wide.

‘The fuck? It’s a fuckin’ dog.’ He nodded at the dumpster. ‘Flesh and bone, fuckin’ dog.’

I could feel the warm, sticky flow of blood as it ran down my arm. ‘You idiots stopped me. I was about to put two in its head. NDLA.’

The lanky guy shouldered the monster; his wrist flopped by his side.

‘Like fuck it is. Thing’s a beaut.  Get more for a real dog than this piece of shit any day. Goldy’s gonna love it.’

The monster threw me aside like I was nothing. ‘Fuck off while you can.’

My shoulder smacked onto the cement, and I growled at the thugs and the pain. The gun lay in a puddle beside the monster’s feet. The lanky guy prodded Biscuit’s body and laughed at how pathetic it was. If they took it away with them, it was dead. Dissected and used to grow twenty more in its place.

I staggered upright, and the lanky guy shrieked.

‘It’s got my nuts!’

He spun wildly, but Biscuit hung onto his groin like some kind of perverted modification, intent on taking the only real thing left of the guy. 

I lunged forward, but the monster turned and thrashed at me with his leg. Connected with my rib, it broke instantly. He leaned down, wrapped his fingers around my head like a crane in a prize machine, and lifted me off the ground again. I swung high with my elbow, and my nose crunched under his palm-thrusted response. I spat through the blood that gushed out of what was left of my nose.

‘I’ve always wanted to crush someone’s skull,’ he said.

His fingers clenched, Biscuit whined, and I followed in the dog’s impulsive response to danger – with a thrust to the monster’s testicles.

I dropped into a roll, found my pistol, and relished in the familiar hum of its rounds activating. The monster stumbled towards me, his face distorted into a rage I wasn’t going to feel the wrath of. He was dead before he hit the floor.

‘Jax!’

The lanky guy came at me with the scruff of Biscuit’s neck clenched in his clawed fist.  ‘I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’

I shot at him but he didn’t stop – didn’t register the bullet. I shot again, and again, and again, and the last bullet did the job. The psychotic mesh of machine and organics collapsed, and I groaned. I staggered along the alley, focused on the dog, and breathing through my mouth.

‘Biscuit. Come on out.’

The dog was good at hiding. I understood why nobody had found it hiding out in the alley. I hoped it hadn’t dashed off somewhere. But sure enough, I found it further down the alley. Biscuit crawled out from its hiding nook and despite the pain, I managed to lower myself to its level.   

‘Hey, buddy.’

Unsure, the dog crept towards me, and I noticed a thin cut on its face. It looked for the thugs.

‘Nah, they’re gone. Looks like we both got a little more than we bargained for.’

Everything hurt, but I knew we had to get out of there. There was no way I’d be able to talk myself out of two dead Royals and an illegal dog. I rustled the dog’s scruffy head and looked into its brown eyes.

‘You wanna come with me?’

My body screamed at me for some goddamned help, but there’d be time for all that later. I lifted Biscuit’s frail body, pulled my slicker over it, and stumbled away from the thugs.

‘What am I gonna feed you?’

The dog food these days wasn’t exactly tailored to dogs. But it was fine. We’d figure it out. 

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